Reading Scripture with John Calvin: Malachi 1.14–2.5

Malachi 1.14–2.5

[14] “Cursed is the cheat who has an acceptable male in his flock and vows to give it, but then sacrifices a blemished animal to the Lord. For I am a great king,” says the Lord Almighty, “and my name is to be feared among the nations. [2.1] And now, you priests, this warning is for you. [2] If you do not listen, and if you do not resolve to honor my name,” says the Lord Almighty, “I will send a curse on you, and I will curse your blessings. Yes, I have already cursed them, because you have not resolved to honor me. [3] Because of you I will rebuke your descendants; I will smear on your faces the dung from your festival sacrifices, and you will be carried off with it. [4] And you will know that I have sent you this warning so that my covenant with Levi may continue,” says the Lord Almighty. [5] “My covenant was with him, a covenant of life and peace, and I gave them to him; this called for reverence and he revered me and stood in awe of my name.”

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COMMENTARY: Calvin begins this portion of his commentary by discussing a distinction between internal and external religion, picking up on the idea of a “cheat” or deceiver in verse 14. His reading is that those offering the sacrifices against which Malachi inveighs are attempting to cheat or deceive God, to present the outward appearance of worship in place of the inward disposition of worship. But worship finally comes down to motive: “though they pretended some religion, yet nothing was done by them with a sincere and honest heart; . . . whatever they thus offered was polluted, because it did no proceed from a right motive” (511). This reminds me of Augustine’s point, made in The Spirit and the Letter (if my memory serves), that obedience is nothing without love. God may command a certain action, and you may - in theory - perform it perfectly, but it doesn’t count if it proceeds from fear. The most important thing is that one loves God and, after all, love covers a multitude of sins (1 Pt 4.8).

Here’s a quick point just because I find it a little amusing. Calvin does one of his “as though he had said” bits with reference to the last half of verse 14 to explain why Malachi would emphasize God’s greatness here. He paraphrases thusly: “With whom do you think that you have to do?” (512) We might paraphrase today with a more or less vulgar version of, “Who do you think you’re dealing with?” In any case, this marks Calvin consistent desire to promote the sort of respect that he believes we ought to exhibit vis-à-vis our Creator.

Both these themes over into his exposition of 2.2., but they become particularized with reference to God’s word specifically. It is not enough to hear God’s word in a perfunctory or insufficiently serious manner. Rather, God’s word must be heard with fitting respect and openness to their affect: “for God is not heard, if we receive with levity his words, so that they soon vanish away; but we hear them when we lay them on the heart, or, as the Latins say, when we apply the mind to them. There is then required a serious attention, otherwise it will be the same as though the ears were closed against God” (514). It is hard not to make connections here with contemporary North American Christianity where God’s word may be heard in a purely physical manner, whether through ear or eye, but where one much more seldom finds that those words are laid upon the heart, applied to the mind, or taken with serious attention. If this isn’t an argument for the importance of catechesis in the church then I don’t know what is. And not only basic or initial catechesis but a self-conscious practice of life-long theological education.

Since we’re on the topic of theological education, Calvin turns in his comments on verse 4 to speak of teachers in the church. He begins by comparing kings and teachers, saying that they both easily fall victim to the erroneous opinion that they stand above mere mortals – in other words, they think they’re better than everyone else. This is certainly something to keep in mind. But he then pivots and argues that the hierarchy of the Roman church has fallen victim to precisely this danger. Indeed, it has done so to such an extent that “they have dared to bind conscience by their own laws” (519), precisely Luther’s complaint in the 95 Theses.

Finally, and with reference to verse 5, Calvin discusses apostolic succession. On this point I will simply reproduce Calvin’s paragraph. Bold is mine, as usual:
The Prophet now proves more clearly how God violates not his covenant, when he freely rebukes the priests, and exposes also their false attempts in absurdly applying to themselves the covenant of God, like the Papal priests at this day, who say that they are the Church. How? because they have in a regular order succeeded the apostles; but this is a foolish and ridiculous definition; for he who occupies the place of another ought not on that account only to be deemed a successor. Were a thief to kill the master of a family, and to occupy his place, and to take possession of all his goods, is he to be accounted his legitimate successor? [Ed. note – sound like Hamlet to anyone else?] So these dishonest men, to show that they are to be regarded as apostles, only allege a continued course of succession; but the likeness between them ought rather to be the subject of inquiry. We must see first whether they have been called, and then whether they answer to their calling; neither of which they can prove. Then their definition is altogether frivolous.
To expand briefly on this. On the question of whether Roman priests have been called, Calvin likely thinks this can’t be proven for two reasons. First, God’s call is not demonstrable per se. Second, God’s call must be ratified by the congregation and this did not happen in the Roman church. On the question of whether they answer to their calling, Calvin does not mean “answer” in terms of hearing the calling and going through the formal motions of response (being ordained, etc.). Rather, and in keeping with his discussion earlier, Calvin has in mind the proper exercise of the ministry to which they are called, and the proper motivation in that ministry. This is obviously missing insofar as the Roman clergy, among other things, “bind conscience by their own laws.”

PRAYER:

(Calvin concludes each of his lectures on Malachi with a prayer.)
Grant, Almighty God, that as thou hast been pleased to choose us as this day thy priests, and hast consecrated us to thyself by the blood of thine only-begotten Son and through the grace of thy Spirit, - O grant, that we may rightly and sincerely perform our duties to thee, and be so devoted to thee that thy name may be really glorified in us; and may we be thus more and more confirmed in the hope of those promises by which thou not only guidest us through the course of this earthly life, but also invitest us to thy celestial inheritance; and may Christ thy Son so rule in us, that we may ever cleave to our head, and be gathered as his members into a participation of that eternal glory into which he has gone before us. – Amen.

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